Tens of thousands of Minnesotans now barred from voting due to felony records are on the cusp of having those rights restored following House passage of a bill Thursday.
The Senate is expected to decide soon on companion legislation that would make as many as 50,000 people again eligible to vote. The restoration would apply to any felon who isn’t incarcerated, regardless of whether they are on parole or probation.
The House passed the bill with bipartisan support, 71-59.
Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope, said his bill recognizes that some judges have leveled long periods of probation, either in addition to or in place of incarceration.
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“These are individuals that have been held accountable for their past decisions yet they are forced to spend years — in some instances decades — shut out of the democratic process,” Frazier said.
Bill opponents argued it’s a cookie-cutter approach that would reduce consequences of serious crimes.
The voting-rights push has been debated and litigated for years but its chances improved when the DFL won full control of state government.
The Minnesota Supreme Court could rule soon on a legal challenge to the current system; it heard a case in late 2021 and has taken an unusually long time publishing a decision after arguments in which justices openly asked if the Legislature has more jurisdiction than the courts on the issue.
Attorney General Keith Ellison said before the House vote that the approaching passage is a culmination of his own attempts to change the law 20 years ago as a legislator.
“It is a good idea to restore hope, to restore redemption, to cut the cost so that we don't have to administer this system. It's actually expensive,” Ellison said at a news conference. He added, “We want people to succeed on probation. We want people to win. Because if they win, then we all win. What we don't want is for people to be locked out, grow cynical.”
Zeke Caligiuri was convicted in 2000 of second-degree murder and aggravated robbery. He’s on supervised release until 2034 after being released from a Minnesota prison last April. He’s now promoting the bill as a community engagement manager with the Minnesota Justice Research Center and advocating for others in his shoes.
“These are human beings. I'm invested in the re-humanization and liberation of human beings. This is what this is,” Caligiuri said. “It's a simple, basic idea of humanity.”
The House scuttled an amendment that would have required any restitution be paid first; opponents of that likened it to a poll tax. Exceptions for people who haven’t fully completed all aspects of sentences tied to sex crimes, murder or terroristic threats also went down.
“The members of this side of the aisle are all for second chances, but with limits,” said Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover.
DFLers also sidetracked a Republican proposal to treat election-law crimes in a different way given that they typically don’t result in prison time.
“Under this law should it pass, they will be able to vote in the next election without any consequences to their voting rights even temporarily,” said Rep. Paul Torkelson, R-Hanska. “It just seems to me – and I think it would seem to many others – that this is a situation where you've committed a crime against voters and against the system that it would be absolutely appropriate that you spend some time thinking about whether you should vote legally or not.”
Minnesota wouldn’t be the first to take the step to speed up voting eligibility. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states automatically restore voting rights upon a person’s release from prison. Others do so after a waiting period. Only 11 carry an indefinite revocation or require completion of all aspects of a sentence.
DFL lawmakers noted the importance of the bill’s passage at the start of Black History Month.
Frazier said Minnesota’s current practice disproportionately affects people of color and is a form of racial discrimination.
“High felony disenfranchisement rates among communities of color dilutes representation in our state's political system,” he said. “And as a system set up on representation, if we can't all participate we can't truly be representative of everyone in our state.”